The kids are alright – or are they? Why energy education is still a vital piece of realising a sustainable future

By David Hall, VP Power Systems UK & Ireland, Schneider Electric

If the newspaper headlines of the past few months were all you had to go by, it may seem as though the battle against climate change is one fought between Gen Z and Baby Boomers in positions of (corporate and political) power. But not so, according to recent research into attitudes towards environmental concerns by Schneider Electric. Though younger generations more often describe themselves as being committed to sustainability, with three-quarters saying they are willing to spend more money on products if it comes from a sustainable brand, young people’s commitment to the environment only goes so far. In fact, on certain issues this generation has views that would shock their parents who spent their own youth worried about the ozone layer.

Schneider Electric’s research has revealed that Generation Z – those born from around the mid-1990s and who are mostly now reaching the age of majority – are far less worried about the planet (and their impact upon it) than their parents. We found that the youngest respondents were half as likely to think that reducing energy consumption is an issue of concern; what’s more, they show little regard for a host of environmental issues, from energy saving to reducing plastic waste.

In the last few decades, we have made great strides towards reducing our impact on the planet, but the gains we’ve struggled so hard to achieve could be wiped out if the following generations fail to follow in our footsteps. We can hope that the older they get, the more today’s youth will become aware of our impact on the planet. Yet how can we encourage them to care about these issues today?

One way, we believe, is to paint a picture of the world we need to build to ensure a renewable, low-carbon and energy-efficient future. The young are idealists, but they are also ambitious. If we can show them the exciting, technologically-driven advances we are making towards a greener world, we can ignite the passion of these digital-native generations and convince them that the future of the planet is a cause worth fighting for.

Leaving behind the age of conspicuous consumption

When discussing the future of energy to today’s youth, we might need to educate them about the wastefulness of traditional energy generation and distribution systems that we have spent decades trying to consign to history. Conventional, oil- gas- and coal-based power plants have yields which barely reach 40-50 percent, while combustion engines, which propel the vast majority of our means of transportation, barely achieve 30 percent efficiency.

Compare this to electric systems. Electric engines often achieve 90 percent efficiency, while electric heat pumps achieve yields that are three to four times higher than fossil for electric engines. Two-thirds of the energy in the tank is wasted. Fossil-fuel based heating systems (furnaces) have also proven to achieve much lower efficiency levels than electric-based ones. Today’s electric heat pumps achieve yields that are three to four times higher than traditional fossil-based systems.

One of the arguments against electric-powered appliances and vehicles is the perceived high cost of renewable energy generation. While this might have been true in the past, this is no longer true in most cases. In over 60 developing countries, solar is cheaper than fossil fuels, while earlier this year IRENA reported that, by 2020, wind and solar generation will be the least expensive electricity sources everywhere.

The growth in renewable generation is one of the success stories of our age, the result of hard work and determination in the face of those who said that green power was an expensive pipe dream. More needs to be done, however, to create the energy infrastructure of the future, which is why it’s so important to get Generation Z on-side.

Sustainability is cool, kids

One example is, of course, smart grids. These enable grid operators to ensure that electricity demand is met sustainably, reliably and flexibly; in conjunction with modern energy storage systems, they ensure that utilities providers can meet demand in the most efficient way possible. But meeting our energy needs depends on more than smart grids, which is why we’ll see a big expansion in microgrids in the years ahead.

Microgrids are zones where energy can be managed autonomously. Examples include university campuses, industrial plants, and factories that manage their energy resources within their perimeter. These might include generation units — such as wind turbines, solar panels, and traditional fossil fuel generators — and energy storage.

The microgrid weaves these power units into a single manageable whole. Power from the outside can be balanced with internal production and, if needed, these microgrids can run on an optional “islanded” mode, disconnected from outside power sources.

Smart grids and microgrids can only work effectively if there is an effective way to store energy from renewable sources, since these do not necessarily generate electricity when demand is highest. That’s why advances in battery technology is so important to our future energy infrastructure – especially for appliances and facilities that require uninterruptible power supplies (UPS).

We’ve already seen great progress in this area with the cost of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries becoming cheaper even as their efficiency continues to increase. In fact, it’s predicted that Li-ion batteries will break the all-important $100/kWh by 2025. Furthermore, they are being used in an ever-increasing number of more ambitious applications: they are now capable of powering not just electric vehicles, but even powering cities. Elon Musk’s celebrated achievement late last year of building a battery to power South Australia in under 100 days provides a vision of what future energy networks will look like.

Looking into a crystal ball

With age, comes experience. As the climate change crisis becomes progressively more severe, it seems inevitable that millennials and Gen Z will come to be as environmentally conscious as elder generations now are. But allowing this process to take its course may be too slow to be effective. Through pushing sustainable technologies to the fore now, we are presented with a unique opportunity to get ahead of the problem. But as our society continues to evolve and digitise, we cannot ask the next generation to deprive themselves of the advantages – but to embrace them in a more sustainable way than previous generations did.